Sunday, November 13, 2011

Musing on Book Reviews

Posted by Darin Hayton on 11/13 at 12:56 PM

I am currently finishing a book review and awaiting the arrival of Robert Westman’s The Copernican Question, which I get to review for Early Science and Medicine. As I work on the one review I find myself thinking about what a book review should should accomplish and how. As if writing a review isn’t reason enough to reflect on the goals of a review, I then read two incredibly disparate reviews of Westman’s new book. At one end of the spectrum is Peter Dear’s in Science, Copernicus and the Science of the Stars, while at the other end is David Wootton’s in the TLS, Revolutions in the Heavens. Both authors, I am sure, think they provided some service to a larger community—interestingly, neither community was obviously or uniquely historians of science.

Dear’s review stays close to the book, detailing the book’s argument, what it says, and what we’ve learned. He opens with a brief history that combines the historiographic interest in Copernicus—Kuhn’s use of Copernicus as the beginning of the Scientific Revolution—with the standard history leading from Copernicus through Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and finally on to Newton. “The Copernican Question,” we are told, “presents a historical picture that puts Copernicus where he belongs: in his own time and place.”1 Copernicus became aware of the difficulties facing prognosticators—today we might call them astrologers—and the attack leveled at them by Pico della Mirandola. Pico’s critique of astrologers’ efforts to order the planets was particularly forceful—Ptolemy had not provided a useful way of ordering the inner planets, Mercury and Venus. Copernicus’s efforts to improve prognostications was central to his astronomical reform, which offered a way of calculating the planetary distances. Dear points out that this book is about more than Copernicus’s innovation. It is also about how subsequent responses or nonresponses to Copernicus’s work. The two key contexts for those responses were the court and the university.

Wootton, by contrast, tells the reader little about the content of the book, focusing instead on its genesis and engaging in a historiographic debate. Wootton had the advantage of more space for his review. Consequently, we are treated to a long opening account of Kepler’s observations and ultimate efforts to publish his New Astronomy and Galileo’s discovery of the phases of Venus that “killed off the Ptolemaic system,” leaving just the Tychonic and Copernican systems.2 Finally, Newton’s theory of gravity “killed off” the Tychonic system. Then comes an odd comparison of how long it took Kuhn to write his The Copernican Revolution and his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 13 years, with how long it took Westman to write The Copernican Question. The long gestation period, Wootton tells us, means Westman’s book “is itself an embodiment of history.” The subsequent paragraphs tell us about how Kuhn’s approach failed to recognize “the importance of new data” and how Westman’s book began as a response to Kuhn but, apparently, failed: “Such a book [a response to Kuhn] would still be timely, for it would show that theory change was in large part driven by observation and by evidence.” The review then spends considerable time taking sociology of science and the “Strong Programme” to task. A consequence of this social constructivist approach, “[h]istory of science became relativistic and multicultural.” We learn little more about Westman’s book (or Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump, the other book under review). Instead, we are told that “Copernicanism did not spread as the result of a cultural or social transformation” and that “Westman also overstates the influence of astrology in the sixteenth century,” when Guicciardini thought “prognostications were evidently there only to entertain his less sophisticated readers.” Later, through printing and the spread of texts “good facts drove out bad.” Finally, we are told, “Westman’s book would have been crisper and sharper if it had been a reply to Kuhn, or as either an endorsement or a refutation of the Strong Programme.” Fortunately, we “can admire his long struggle not to be confined by yesterday’s questions.”

Of these two reviews, Dear’s seems the more useful and closer to a review. Having read it, I know something about Westman’s book—its argument, structure, coverage. Wootton’s review is more an extended condemnation of a certain historiography along with a healthy dose of derision than a review. I learned little about Westman’s book (or even Shapin and Schaffer’s). Whether or not I agree with Wootton’s larger historiographic point, I don’t think a review is the correct place to wage some battle. While I would have liked to see more critique in Dear’s review—in 700+ pages of double-column text, surely he found something to challenge—I prefer his review because, well, he reviewed the book rather than used it as an invitation to vent about historiography.3

Thinking about these reviews and the one I will have to write, I reread some reviews that I had found useful and read various guidelines on reviews in order to try to distill out characteristics of an effective review.

A schematic, sort of baseline for a review is offered by H-Net: Review Guidelines. They suggest covering the following areas:

  • effectiveness—situate the work in a broader context and explain the important issues;

  • content—include a brief summary of the scope, purpose, and content of the work;

  • evaluation—evaluate strengths and weaknesses, use of sources, methodology, organization in light of the work’s stated purpose;

  • professionalism—express fair and balanced criticism in courteous, temperate, constructive terms.

The key here seems to be “in light of the work’s stated purpose.” It seems the burden of the reviewer to take seriously the author’s goals. If the author fails to articulate clearly those goals, then the reviewer has the added task of inferring them and should draw attention to this fact in the review. Nevertheless, the starting point seems to be identifying the author’s intentions and goals. Don’t condemn a book because it fails to meet your own goals—you might not like such a book or find much use for it, but that is a different issue. Likewise, don’t condemn an author for not writing the book you would write about similar material, or the book you are writing or perhaps have been writing for years. Instead, go write that book. But until you have finished your book, assess the one in front of you on its terms.

Perhaps the author’s stated intentions and goals are, in your view, fundamentally flawed (Wootton seems to have nothing but contempt for social construction). Fine. Don’t practice that form of history. But don’t use a book review to lambast that historiography. Go off and write a book that tells a better—a more coherent, more cogent, more persuasive, more robust, more nuanced—story. Convince people that your form of history is better by showing them rather than attacking imagined opponents in some academic contest. “Don’t,” as John Updike warned many years ago, “imagine yourself the caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind.”4 This advice concludes his “code of reviewing drawn up inwardly when [he] embarked on his craft.” We would do well to recall a few other “codes”:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never … try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.[My emphasis added]5

In presenting his “code of reviewing,” Updike exercised humility and recognized that he did not always succeed.6 Nonetheless, he began by trying to understand what the author intended to accomplish and strove for equanimity and fairness in criticism and praise.

Attending to the author’s intentions and evaluating the book in terms of those goals does not mean every book succeeds. Few books are wholly successful. But most books that make it into print succeed to some degree. After all, these books have made it through acquisitions editors, through outside reviews, and through revising and editing. There must be something there worthwhile.

Best Practices, a recent post at The Edge of the American West, offers some useful guidelines for reviewing books, though the post is intended to offer advice on refereeing manuscripts. The following points seem relevant to book reviews:

  • Begin by recognizing what the author has accomplished—it is easy to criticize and highlight what is wrong with a book but not always that helpful. Instead, acknowledge what the author has achieved. Tell the reader what succeeds in a book. You will have plenty of time to highlight problems.

  • Be concrete—don’t simply criticize like some petulant child. Instead, identify problems and then explain why they present difficulties for the author’s argument.

  • Highlight errors without judging—nobody is perfect. A mistake can be just that, a mistake. And a mistake doesn’t invalidate an argument or undermine a historiographic approach.

  • Be gracious (and, I would add, generous)—a reviewer is in the privileged position of not having the last word in an argument (some journals allow the author to respond, but generally they don’t). But that doesn’t justify being hostile. You never know when you might find yourself on the other side of the review. More broadly, reviews build relationships—reviewers are generally selected because they work on related material. A review I wrote some time back was the basis for a pleasant conversation with a scholar last weekend at the annual HSS conference.

In the end, I am reminded of advice I was given as a graduate student. I was ranting about a particularly bad book, at least in my opinion it was a bad book. A mentor asked: “Did you learn something? If not, perhaps you weren’t reading carefully. If so, then it seems you don’t know as much as the author and perhaps you could tell us what you learned.” I had to admit that I had, in fact, learned something, quite a bit in fact. There are few books from which we don’t learn something. If all else fails, tell us what you learned.

1Peter Dear, “Copernicus and the Science of the Stars,” Science 334 (4 November 2011), 598. The review is online at Copernicus and the Science of the Stars, regrettably behind a paywall.
2Wootton’s review is online at: David Wootton, Revolutions in the Heavens, TLS.
3Dear offered some critiques in his paper at the recent HSS conference in Cleveland. Perhaps space limitations in Science or consideration about his audience—probably dominated by scientists rather than historians of science—deterred him from airing those critiques in his printed review.
4John Updike “Foreword” to Picked-Up Pieces (New York: Knopf, 1975), xvii.
5Ibid, xvi–xvii.
6Updike admits that “filial affection” and “fear of reprisal” and even dreams of “sleeping with the authoress” have at times colored his reviews. In other cases, “irritations of the moment” and “sheer exasperation” have influenced others. Ibid.

Tags: book reviewing, copernicus, david wootton, historiography, john updike, peter dear, robert westman, strong programme, the copernican question, thomas kuhn